New Zealand’s Mount Cook

Sky Piercer: A Kiwi and Mount Cook

Lurching into the air, three engineless gliders attempt to avoid collision as their tow plane drags them into a blustery New Zealand sky. Harnessing the thermal lift provided by the barren brown hills, the engineless gliders race north across the plains, the stony ground rapidly rising toward their delicate wings. Just managing to locate another thermal at the southern end of the Ben Ohau range, the pilots work their way toward New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook. Buffeted by gusting winds, dropping like a stone one minute and rising effortlessly the next, this is not the smooth soaring procedure the brochures promised. This is a plastic coffin roller coaster off its rails. The emergency escape option is learning to skydive on the fly—assuming you manage to drag yourself free of the plummeting plane, that is.

Finally finding enough thermal lift, the gliders move into formation, flying across the sky far above the roof of New Zealand. Mount Cook unfolds beneath as huge swooping turns and loops cut the sky apart with silent grace. In all the dizzying excitement, the purpose of this flight, a recon of Mount Cook’s steep ramps for skiing, isn’t exactly ideal, as the aerial view does nothing for one’s confidence. The mountain seems that much more massive and daunting from above, a giant fortress that will easily repel our puny efforts. The Tasman Sea lies to the left, the Pacific Ocean to the right and our chosen ski line, the steep East Face, towers above the rest of the Southern Alps, dead ahead. After six hours aloft, we gladly return to terra firma, touching down on a grass landing strip lit up by parked cars to once again check the weather report… 

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